December 17, 2011

Jungle Adventures - Sumatra

Head craned upwards, I squinted and strained my eyes to find what Kumbar was pointing at, high up in the canopy. There! A flurry of movement as the ape flung itself from one branch to the next, the acrobat of the jungle. We'd found an elusive white-handed gibbon, bigger than the long-tailed macaques that had been following us on our trek so far, and with thick, powerful arms. As we watched it, the gibbon began to sing: a bright, soprano warble, floating down from the canopy.

We watched it leap from tree to tree for a while, and then, still listening to the warbling, we climbed higher on the path, following a low ridge deeper into the jungle.

We rounded a corner and stopped dead. There, sitting at eye level and working us over with a penetrating gaze, was an orangutan. There was a movement beside her, and we saw a smaller face look out at us, maybe curious. Two orangutans.

This was the goal of our hike. We'd arrived on the Indonesian island of Sumatra the day before and made our way to Bukit Lawang, a village famous among travelers for its orangutan sanctuary.

And here we were, in the jungle, face-to-face with a semi-wild female, rehabilitated after years in captivity.

The pair didn't pay us much attention, and took off through the forest, swinging slowly between trees, stopping to chew a leaf or to break open a termite nest for a mid-morning snack. We followed them down the ridge. What beautiful, graceful creatures!

We came across a single Thomas Leaf Monkey, sitting calmly on a log, sporting the distinctive mohawk - and then the baby orangutan chased him away. Poor guy.

Although the orangutans have been largely rehabilitated and most of them manage to fill their tummies on jungle fruits and leaves and grubs, there is a lingering problem of unsanctioned feedings by the guides during treks. This is bad for two reasons: first, the ape cannot be entirely rehabilitated and second, orangutans are very susceptible to human diseases. They can catch viruses from eating food that's been handled by humans.

I'm happy to say that we didn't see our guide feed any of the wildlife, but we did see another guide handing out bananas to an orangutan who approached and grabbed his bag. To be fair, there isn't really another way to get the bag back - she was well aware that if she held it hostage, she'd get a ransom. But after the episode was over, he continued feeding her and patting her on the back. Not a great way to help these beautiful creatures re-attain their independence.

But overall, the guides we spoke to seemed very aware of and concerned about the delicate situation of our ginger friends. To most of them, having grown up in Bukit Lawang and the neighbouring communities, the apes are part of the community and part of their unique heritage.

We arranged with some other travelers to share a van from Bukit Lawang to an elephant sanctuary at the village of Tangkahan, two hours farther north in the jungle.

This was prime logging territory until a stand-off between loggers and environmentalists convinced the government to name the whole area as protected land. This ever-shrinking jungle tract is home to Sumatran elephants, and without a vast amount of space, like the orangutans, the elephants can't survive. From Tangkahan, rangers still roam the jungle mounted on elephants (all formerly captive) to check for signs of logging and poaching.

For the last few years, the village has also made a name for itself by allowing tourists to pay for elephant trekking through the jungle, again using the formerly captive, domesticated elephants.

We started our day by bathing the elephants - armed with a stiff-bristled scrub brush, we wadded into the water and 'washed' the elephant that was waiting patiently on its side, half submerged in the muddy river... really, it's more of a wet back scratch. The elephant seemed pretty content with the whole thing.

Sumatran elephants are smaller than their African cousins, but still impressively enormous. We rode Augustine, who is twenty-two years old. When a pro rides an elephant, he signals the elephant and it offers a bent leg, which he uses to propel himself up around the beast's thick, leathery neck... we, obviously, are not pros. So we climbed clumsily into our saddle from a raised platform.

How amazing to cruise along on the padded saddle, feeling the elephant's slow, steady stride and the rolling motions of her back as she negotiated little hills and the muddy jungle trail, all while snatching snacks from the sides of the path.

All in all, a pretty incredible week!